The theme of this year’s Future Decoded was Maximising the AI opportunity. During this annual event Microsoft explains its vision for the future of technology. The first edition occurred 5 years ago and has grown to a huge event with 12000 attendees and 140 breakout sessions. This year I had the pleasure of attending this event in London for the first time.
According to Microsoft there are several major tech trends that are enabled by the core paradigm of AI in the form of the Intelligent Cloud and the Intelligent Edge. The general trends were mostly explained by Microsoft UK CTO Michael Wignall in the keynotes as well as in 2 breakout sessions. Let’s have a look these trends.
The Intelligent Cloud and the Intelligent Edge
We have moved on from the era of mobile first and cloud first and today we are in the era of the Intelligent Cloud and the Intelligent Edge with AI at its core. We want to deliver people centric experiences and we are computing everywhere. But what does Microsoft mean by the Intelligent Cloud and the Intelligent Edge?
There are many computational workloads for which the cloud is best suited. The economy of scale, and the levels of resilience and reliability of the cloud are not found elsewhere. This is especially true for AI with its large datasets and extensive computational needs. But the cloud is intimately connected with the edge. The edge is how we interact with the cloud. This can be a smartphone, but also a PC, a wearable or some other IoT device. All these devices are getting more and more powerful processors making computing ubiquitous. We don’t want to make all decisions in the cloud, simply because we are limited by the speed of light for our round-trip time to the cloud.
Microsoft thinks both the edge and the cloud will be infused with Artificial Intelligence. You want the edge and the cloud to work together and do things intelligently. With these things in place we can provide customers with a user centric experience. A user’s digital experience should be mobile and go with you whether it is on your phone, your smart home, your car or on the devices you use at work. These things together form the base of the technology trends that are explained here.
The term AI is not well defined. Different people use the term to mean different things. One definition people like to use is the AI you see in movies. A continuous computer being able to do anything. This form of AI is probably still decades into the future. On the other end of the spectrum we have people who call a simple if-then-else statement AI. There are a lot of definitions in between that all have the following three things in common: data, compute and algorithms.
The idea of AI has existed for a long time, but there is a reason that it is a trend today: all three things are starting to come together. With the advent of everything being connected the amount of data that is available today is enormous. With specialized hardware in the cloud the computing power that is available and affordable has also grown quickly in the last few years. With both elements readily available we have seen a lot of development of new algorithms. For example: in the last 2 years we have reached human parity with vision (RESNET), speech (switchboard) and language (the SQuAD reading comprehension test).
For the long time the primary way we interact with computers has been the mouse and keyboard. Then for the last 10 years it has been the touchscreen on our smartphone. The future way of interacting with technology will be mixed reality.
The current state of mixed reality is still very much focussed on enterprise. On the consumer side we have a well-known example of mixed reality with Pokémon Go. One of the main reasons for the lack of consumer mixed reality is that the cost of a device like HoloLens is still very high. For enterprise there are a lot of scenarios where the high cost is easily salvaged. A HoloLens can be used for things like training or guiding repair processes. For example: with HoloLens you could have a general mechanic repair a plane engine which would normally require a specialist, simply by having a specialist in a central repair station guide the process. This can save of a lot of time and effort. It is difficult to convey how well HoloLens works in a blog. I got a chance to try it out at the expo and it is actually really impressive. If you get the chance I would recommend everyone to give it a try.
The last trend that I want to touch upon is quantum computing. I am not going to try to explain how quantum computing work because there are plenty of resources for that. There are a lot of problems in computing science that can only be optimally solved by trying every single solution. A traditional computer must try these solutions one by one. A quantum computer has the ability to try all solutions concurrently. Depending on the problem this can give a quadratic or even exponential speedup.
There are a lot of useful applications for quantum computing. One of the example that was given is the creation of ammonia fertilizer. This type of fertilizer is used a lot but the current process of making it is very inefficient. There is also an enzyme in plants that can naturally make ammonia from nitrogen. However, this enzyme is too complex to model on a traditional computer (1.5*1051 bits). Using a quantum computer this enzyme could be modelled and the discovery of an alternative efficient process would reduce one of the heavier environmental burdens on our planet.
These general trends are just a few of the things that were discussed at Future Decoded 2018. You can find a video of one of the breakout sessions on these trends (Future Technology Trends Explained) as well as a lot of other information on futuredecoded.com. Microsoft also released a report on AI which can be downloaded for free here.
Consultant ALTEN Nederland
source visuals: Microsoft